Cassini, We’re Going to Miss You!

The Cassini spacecraft is about to end its role in one of the most incredible scientific journeys in history. Launched almost twenty years ago on a billion-mile trip to Saturn, Cassini has been sending back astounding images and data ever since. An international collaboration of U.S. and European space agencies, Cassini has probably delivered more surprises to researchers on Earth than any probe before or after—ranging from pictures of the mist-shrouded surface of Titan with its methane lakes and rivers, to the water geysers and hidden ocean of Enceladus, to the stunning beauty and complexity of the rings, to the crazy giant hexagon* on the north pole of Saturn itself.

NASA has produced a breathtaking video summary of Cassini’s journey, which I would embed here if I could find the embed code. But click here, and watch it in full screen. It’ll be the best five minutes you spent today.

Cassini has been a workhorse of stellar quality. But it’s finally running out of fuel—years after the originally planned end date of its mission—and to keep it from accidentally colliding with one of the potentially life-hosting moons, it’s going out in a blaze of glory, burning up tomorrow morning in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. It makes me sad. I wish it could have been kept in a parking orbit somewhere safe, so that some future exploration crew could have docked with it, put placards on it, and turned it into the Saturn branch of the Smithsonian, to be kept in perpetuity. But caution ruled, and rightly so, I guess. We’re looking eagerly for extraterrestrial life, and it wouldn’t do for the field to be littered with bits of Earth life. Plus, she’ll be doing science all the way in as she augers into Saturn, where she’ll melt and burn and vaporize at the end. What a way to go.

I feel kind of weepy, imagining that. But you can watch it live right here, Friday morning at 7-8:30 a.m. EDT.

Here’s a collection of some of Cassini’s greatest hits.

*Which I still maintain is a hex socket for aliens to use in opening up the top of the planet. JPL scientists insist it’s a weather system, and usually I believe them. This time, I’m not so sure.

Larry Predicts a Red Nova in 2022

I was just reading in Astronomy Magazine that astronomers have predicted that a binary pair of stars will merge into one in 2022, and set off an explosion called a red nova, similar to this image of V838 Monocerotis, from the Hubble space telescope. It’ll be as bright as the North Star, and last for up to six months. That’s a pretty striking prediction, and not the sort of prediction astronomers usually make. (More here.) But here’s the thing…

I was most of the way through the article when I went, Wait—who? I scrolled back up to read again, who’s being quoted here. I wasn’t seeing things—it’s Lawrence Molnar of Calvin College in Michigan. Way to go, Larry! Larry Molnar and his wife Cindy are friends from way back, having lived right above us for several years right after Allysen and I got married. We went to the same church; we exchanged babysitting. He was my first consultant on the question of how one could theoretically set off a supernova (From a Changeling Star), and he introduced me to other consultants at Center for Astrophysics at Harvard. We also made a snow dog together (modeled on Sam, our first border collie mix), back in the 1980s.

Larry, Snow-Sam, Jeff

This is cool. I’m going to be watching, Larry, to see if it happens on time.

Curly and Moe were not mentioned as participants in the study.*

*Sorry. That’s the only part of this post that’s an April Fools joke. The rest is real.

Planet of Proxima Centauri

Huge news from the world of astronomy! A planet has been discovered circling the closest star to ours, just 4.25 light-years away! And it may be in the Goldilocks zone—neither too close to its star nor too far away to have liquid water. Proxima is a red dwarf, much smaller than our sun, and Proxima b (the planet) is orbiting much closer to its star than Earth, with an orbit around its sun every 11.2 days. The net effect of this is that, depending on what kind of atmosphere it has, the surface temperature could be moderate enough for water to exist in liquid form: ideal for our kind of life. This is big news, even bigger than the apparent discovery a few years ago of a planet circling Alpha Centauri (part of the same star group, but a little further away). Read the details on Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy blog. And here’s a video from the European Southern Observatory:

Regarding that previous discovery around Alpha Centauri, it was (according to Phil Plait’s article) later found to be an error. But he thinks the evidence for this one is a lot more solid. So here’s hoping, and let’s start tuning up that stardrive!

Great Way to Celebrate the Fourth of July

juno-jupiter-artist-conceptWhat better way to crown the Fourth of July, a celebration of the birth of the U.S.A., than to plunk a billion-dollar spacecraft—Juno, the fastest-moving probe ever launched by humanity—into a perfect orbit around Jupiter? This isn’t just any orbit. NASA had to thread Juno into a precise path taking the craft between the planet’s upper atmosphere and its hellish radiation belt. Too close to that belt, and the instruments would have been instant toast. Fortunately, NASA eats challenges like that for lunch. Juno will be flying a highly elliptical path over the huge planet’s poles, zooming repeatedly to within a few thousand miles of the atmosphere and then whipping way out for a long-distance view.

Jupiter's magnetic field-artist's conceptLike so many space stories, there’s a lot in this that echoes my current work in progress. Readers of The Chaos Chronicles might remember that Li-Jared comes from Karellia, a planet with a fiery radiation belt surrounding it. In The Reefs of Time, Li-Jared (and we) get a chance to visit that world, which features things even weirder than the “beautiful, perilous sky” that its inhabitants know so well.

Take a moment to enjoy this view of Jupiter’s moons circling the great planet, shot by Juno on its flight inbound.

Far Out Views from Space

posted in: astronomy, space | 0

Astronaut Scott Kelly is coming home from the International Space Station after 340 days in orbit. Click here at the Boston Globe for a gallery of some amazing images he shared during his time at the edge of the great Up-and-Out.*

Aurora from ISS_SKelly
Aurora seen from the ISS


Moon Venus Jupiter from ISS_SKelly
The Moon, Venus, and Jupiter peering back at Astronaut Kelly


Milky Way from ISS_SKelly
The Milky Way, our home galaxy

*If the “Up-and-Out” is unfamiliar to you, you may not have had the pleasure of reading any of the stories of the late Cordwainer Smith. Here’s one of my favorites, The Game of Rat and Dragon. It starts this way:

“Pinlighting is a hell of a way to earn a living….” [more]




Last night’s supermoon lunar eclipse was gorgeous, even viewed from our suburban Boston driveway. It gave me a reason to bring out my Meade ETX-90 Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope, which is a compact 3.5 inch reflector that I don’t use as much as I would like. I don’t have equipment for taking pictures, so I’ll show you some that other people took.

The thing that most struck me was how much the reddened Moon, with its dark, patchy maria, looked like pictures of Mars, especially from the days when astronomers had only modest ground-based telescopes—but even now, with the Hubble.  I’ll show you one of those, below the moon shots.

The other thing, as I peered through the lens wishing I could see the Apollo lander equipment, was that twelve men walked on that world over forty years ago. It’s high time some more men took that stroll—and some women, too. And maybe for some to go there to stay.

The third thing was, this was an anniversary of sorts for Allysen and me. It was the last supermoon eclipse, in 1982, that got us started dating!

Here (if the code works) is a slideshow the Telegraph put together on short notice. Our view probably looked most like the one you’ll see from Paris, here.

And here’s a shot of Mars, from the Hubble Space Telescope. Reminiscent, no?

And what the hey, in keeping with the theme, here’s a picture of Moonlight:


Loving This View of Pluto

NASA has put together a short animation from some of the images taken by New Horizons, showing amazing detail of the mountain range and one of the smoother sections. This is only the beginning. Think of it! We are all part of the generation of Humanity that got to see Pluto up close for the first time! (Actually, come to think of it, I have lived to see, with the rest of the world, every planet in the solar system up close for the first time. That’s pretty amazing.)

You can see it bigger at APOD.

How can you not heart Pluto? I’m sure the aliens who painted this feature on the surface of the planet were much nicer than the ones I wrote about last time.

The heart-shaped feature has been provisionally named Tombaugh Regio for farmer-astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. (And whom I got to hear speak at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, back in the late 1980s.)


Pluto! And Charon!

Charon and Pluto, seen from New Horizons

Today’s the day! NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft will whiz past Pluto at a distance of only 7800 miles today—in fact, by the time you read this, will already have made the flyby! This little spacecraft has sent us some amazing pictures of Pluto and Charon, and if everything goes right, they will only get better. The spacecraft will be out of contact with Earth during the flyby, the better to frantically shoot pictures and hoover up as much data as it can during the brief encounter. That data will be sent back at a very slow bit-rate, because of the distance, and will take over a year to be transmitted in its entirety!

I’ve always felt that Pluto, way out in the dark of farthest interplanetary space, was one of our most fascinating planets. And yes, the astronomers have agreed now that it’s a dwarf planet—but to me, it will always be our ninth planet.

In fact, when I was a kid, a favorite science fiction novel was called Secret of the Ninth Planet, by Donald A. Wollheim (who later went on to found DAW Books). It involved a kid traveling on an emergency expedition to visit all the planets of the solar system, to learn why the sun was getting dimmer. They found out, all right—it was a bunch of crummy, scum-sucking aliens, who had planted special antennae on each planet, to somehow draw off power from the sun for the aliens’ nefarious purposes. It took cleverness, grit, and maybe a few nukes, but we took care of that. I read that story at least a dozen or two dozen times when I was at a certain age.

You can download this science fiction classic from Project Gutenberg.

Oh, and you can follow the real-life Pluto mission here on or here at NASA. Don’t miss it!

1 2 3